Trans-Provence is one of the most amazing events I’ve ever done but also one of the hardest. It is so challenging physically, mentally, and technically that I can’t say I would recommend it to very many people. I first attended in both 2012 and 2013 and still list it as some of my favourite memories on a bike. I used to think riding new trails as fast as I could was a little stupid but after improving my blind skills and comfort level, I began to really love this test of bike and body. I now prefer to never follow on a new trail and feel like riding blind is really a true test of a rider’s skill. The racing at Trans-Provence had me hooked but it was also the atmosphere and camaraderie. No practice to worry about; just freely enjoying riding, suffering, camping, drinking, and eating together with an incredible group of people across some absolutely stunning terrain and trails.
I was lucky enough to return this summer for the third and final time to the original mountain bike rally which has influenced so many riders and events since its origin in 2009. It was a somewhat emotional farewell to an event that always reminds me why I love mountain biking and exploring new trails. For the last edition Ash did some incredible work packing as much as he could into a stunning itinerary. Over six days we rode over 320km, ascended around 10,000m, descended well over 22,000m, and raced against the clock for around 3hr on 24 Special Stages. Almost every stage raced for the first time. It’s hard to put the experience into words but follows are a few anecdotes and memories from the legendary event. Day 1:
After a morning uplift and short transfer through some spectacular alpine we arrived at Special Stage 1 and the race against the clock began. I was really happy this year to arrive in France a day early and get a short prologue ride in to remind me how different, challenging, and uncomfortable the trails can be to ride fast. Very few are designed for bikes, there is no hero dirt, and support in corners is rarely found. Stage 1 was described as the most XC-ish of the week but it left me feeling like a rookie and all kinds of awkward. Dropping in at 2300m my legs immediately felt sluggish but the narrow trails, massive exposure, closing corners, lack of grip left me feeling like an amateur. I was sure I had lost massive time but later learned I had one of my best stage finishes in 2nd. This is always a bit of a theme racing blind and especially at Trans-Provence; you had better get comfortable with being uncomfortable and dealing with some frustration. The lungs were pretty burnt from Stage 1 but I found my blind racing rhythm throughout the day as we raced three more superb trails and slowly got used to the challenging donkey trails to come. A nice lunch break at a castle, ice cream on a hot transfer, and hiking uphill for an hour quickly reminded me what we were to encounter in the days ahead. Day 2:
The second day started with an uplift to the Col d’Allos which was one of the most spectacular launch points of the week. One of the most amazing parts of the Trans-Provence experience is how Ash links the spectacular route up on over the Maritime Alps to the finish in Menton on the Mediterranean. Day 2 started with over 1000m elevation of liaison descending through some stunning scenery where we eventually stopped for an impromptu coffee near the valley floor. After one of the hottest hikes back up next mountain we eventually started the first stage of the day sometime after noon. The days blend together but I do remember a spectacular second half of the day punctuated by thunder rolling around the mountains which put a little urgency into the pace. As the dark clouds circled, I dropped into the last stage just before the hail storm hit. With a final transfer to camp still remaining everyone rolled into a town bar to share war stories, beer, and pizza. By the time we got to the nights camp the storm was in full effect, but everyone took it in stride and had smiles on their faces. Day 3:
Navigation during blind racing is always a challenge and everyone got warned about it on day three at the rider briefing. It is an incredibly important skill for all mountain biking to look ahead but it is absolutely critical when racing blind. The only way to carry speed and not kill yourself is to be looking as far ahead as possible trying to interpret the trail; always scanning and using your peripheral vision to anticipate switchbacks and changes of direction. The challenge on this day was that we had a couple wide open scrappy alpine stages where the trail wasn’t very defined. Adding to the challenge were early tire tracks and skids from previous riders gone astray. Everyone seemed to come back with a war story from going slightly off course to bush wacking for several minutes trying to rejoin the racing line. Adding to the comedy was the sharp thorny bushes that left their mark on everyone. I don’t have the speed or commitment level of the young guns so my only opportunity is to make less mistakes on course. I managed to only make a few small mistakes on the toughest third stage and had my closest encounter with a stage win; unfortunately came up just a couple seconds short and that was as close as I got all week. Day 4:
Early afternoon after three stages it all seemed to be going smooth as we headed to Sospel. Just a nice looking 12-15km liaison on the map to the last uplift that looked mostly downhill. After some fun rocky singletrack things started to go sideways; figuratively and literally. After turning the corner around some old ruins, I swapped my rear wheel traversing and suddenly found myself falling 6-8ft off a rock wall into a bramble bush. Luckily nothing serious but after Randy helped me back up he then clipped his pedal and landed on his ass thirty seconds later. After that it was time for a sugar timeout to regroup and everyone was starting to run low on water in the heat. The “fun” was just getting started as we then ran straight into a bit of a “push”; cursing we carried our bikes straight up old terraced terrain on the verge of cracking. Followed was one of the rockiest, longest, tightest switchback sections in the world (in my mind at that point) down into Sospel. My arms were cooked, and I had to tap out half way down. Mentally blown at this point we’d never been happier to see fresh cut melons, water, and snacks at the uplift. One more stage still remained, and this was typical of what Trans-Provence is all about. The challenge is feeling beat down and tired and turning the head and focus back on for the next special stage. Sometimes you never know what you will come across out on the donkey trails. Day 5:
The days at Trans-Provence are long and the terrain is rocky, brutal, and mistakes, crashes, and flat tires are almost inevitable. Everyone carries plenty of spare parts, tools, and tricks, and it is often a group effort to get everyone to the finish line. I saw so many flat tires, broken wheels, derailleurs, chains, as well as broken bodies. With all the exposure, fatigue, and risk at Trans-Provence I’m actually surprised how few serious incidents there are. The days can be super long and after starting every morning early it is pretty common to be out for 10-12hrs. After Day 4 finished around 7pm I looked at my bike and tires and thought good enough. I knew my rear tire was cooked, pretty much bald from the punishing rocky terrain, but I didn’t have the energy to change it. This ended up biting me pretty bad as Day 5 had some of the steepest, loosest, and fastest off-camber trails of the whole week. I was pretty terrified to touch my rear brake traversing as my bald tire would lose traction immediately. After an innocuous early morning grass slide out, I had my scariest moment of the week on the last stage of the day. On a high speed and narrow traverse, I swapped my rear end and pinballed down the trail; off a tree, into the high bank, and back off the other side. It was quite a scary moment but after taking a few moments to compose myself, straighten out my controls, everything seemed relatively okay and I was able to roll down to the finish. A little bit rattled and confidence shaken it didn’t help that the final liaison was down an incredibly beautiful but incredibly exposed canyon trail. Needless to say, I walked a few more sections than usual and was pretty happy to make it back to camp in one piece. Day 6:
I wasn’t any less tired but after putting on a fresh Assegai on the rear I was a little more confident on the last day and excited to head for the Mediterranean. Ash, however, wasn’t going to make it easy on us the for the last ever day of Trans-Provence. It was a long, super-hot, day but one of the most beautiful as we passed through some spectacular scenery and villages. A long push to the top of last hill almost cracked us but the view to the finish was absolutely stunning. After so much suffering it is strangely anti-climactic and almost sad when the clock stopped for the last time. We spend the whole week trying to survive to the finish but when it is over you feel like you don’t want it to end. After one last surprisingly technical urban downhill liaison we finally reached the Mediterranean and jumped in for a well-deserved swim and beer. One of Ash’s new ventures is in Sapaudia brewing so there was no shortage of drinks to be had all week. The results are always a bit secondary but the race for the win was pretty intense this year. It was mind-blowing riding some of these trails blind and knowing the commitment and speed it takes to win. He had to battle through several mishaps and it was great to see Randy, aka Marco, come out on top. I faded a bit over the last couple days but was still psyched to be in the mix most of the week and finish 9th overall. Equipment:
My first Trans-Provence experience in 2012 I was way in over my head. I did some DH racing when I was young, but 2012 was my first time racing blind Enduro. It was definitely stressful trying to figure out what I needed to pack to survive the event. It is hard to imagine now but I received my “enduro” race bike at Interbike that year a couple days before leaving for France. My first ride at Dirt Demo I smashed one of the light weight carbon rims to bits and pieces. I was in a bit of a panic as it was one of the very first 27.5 bikes and I had to steal another wheel off the Interbike showroom floor. The only tires I could source at the time were a couple 2.25 Ardents and one spare to last the week. Somehow, I milked that bike, light tires, and sketchy wheels for seven days over the Maritime alps, quite puckered up at times, and made it to the Mediterranean. I broke a couple spokes, learned about tire plugs, scared myself few times, but survived and had an amazing time. Crazy to think but in 2012 I was the only 27.5in bike and Chris Ball was the only guy on a 29er. In 2013 I came back much more equipped and ready for the experience and enjoyed it even more. This year I knew exactly what I was in for and it is amazing how technology has evolved in such a short time.
Trans-Provence is an extreme test of equipment and I decided to build up a SB150 to ride and race for first time this year. After the first couple days of racing I thought my SB130 might have worked but by the end of the week I was thankful for every extra millimeter of extra travel. Wheels and tires are always a tough decision but it was an easy choice to run Stan’s Flow MK3 aluminum wheels; it’s a brutal 6 days of racing it wasn't worth risking carbon fiber hoops as I saw more than a few break this year. I wanted to be able to push hard so for rubber up front I ran a MaxxGrip Double Down Maxxis Assegai and a MaxxGrip DH Casing Maxxis Minion DHF in the rear; on the sixth day I switched out to an Assegai in the rear. I kept my tire pressure pretty steady at 21.5psi front/24psi rear for the race. I ran my usual Shimano XTR drivetrain and trail brakes; 36 11-51 gearing, 203/180mm rotors, trail pedals, and shorter 170mm cranks for a little extra clearance. Fresh bike at the start of the week survived but not without a few marks and memories.
I had 4-5 rides in Squamish to dial in my Fox X2 shock and 170mm 36 Grip 2 fork but still needed to adjust as the week went on. I felt pretty dialled when I left but I definitely had to puzzle and adjust my settings to suit the different terrain. The biggest challenge was as the week went on and I fatigued I just didn’t have the strength to push as hard. I ran a little more low-speed compression to handle the steep switchbacks but really had to soften the pressure front and rear as the week went on. For cockpit I use a PRO Tharsis carbon bar which I cut down to a 760mm paired with a 35mm Tharsis stem. I really prefer the comfort and feel of thicker diameter grips and I’m happy to have some customized Lizard Skin Northshore grips which measure in at 33mm. Living in Squamish it is also great to be able to stop by OneUp Components before I left to get an EDC tool to install as well as color matched V2 chain guide with new tool-less flip and bash guard. I definitely smashed a few rocks, fell off several times, but was really happy to see my equipment survived the entire week with just a few knicks and scratches. A small dent in the front wheel from rimming out was the closest call I had with mechanical trouble on course. I keep a checklist in my notes for all the blind enduro spares and equipment to take and not needing any of it was great. Maybe I should have changed that tire after Day 4? My Camelbak was full of equipment just in case. Luckily I didn't need much of it.
What’s next for Ash and Melissa? Who’s knows but there are lots of rumours. Regardless I’ll be forever grateful like many others for getting the opportunity to ride and share the Trans-Provence experience with so many great people. Cheers to everyone involved. That's it, that's all? Not sure but thank to Ash, Melissa, and everyone who helped make Trans-Provence so memorable.